Out To Get You / Move Down South / To My Surprise / Surfer’s Song / Catapult / Come Home / Ring The Bells / Sometimes / PS / Girl At The End Of The World / Bitch / She’s A Star / Just Like Fred Astaire / Dear John / Honest Joe / Sound / Attention / Sit Down / Moving On / Nothing But Love / What For / Tomorrow
Jack Savoretti / The Slow Readers Club
Manchester so much to answer for. Manchester is home for James although none of the line-up on stage tonight currently reside in the world’s greatest city. It’s still their spiritual home though where they formed, where they survived the barren early years, where they wrote their best known songs in the dark satanic mills of Ancoats. The city may have changed unrecognisably since then and James may have died, been reborn and reinvented time and time again, but tonight’s show in the Arena felt like a triumphant return of the prodigal son.
Opening up are local band The Slow Readers Club at the personal invitation of Jim and Saul from James who have tirelessly championed them this year – and with good reason. Of the hundreds of unsigned bands in Manchester these are the ones that are most ready to make bigger stages their own. As they did at Brixton Academy last Saturday they don’t look or sound out of the place in one of the largest halls in the land and with a Ritz show announced for November, things do look to be taking off for them good and proper now.
Those that have assembled early are treated to a half hour seven-song set that’s primarily taken from last years’ Cavalcade album plus the magnificent One More Minute from their self-titled debut. It’s a sign of where they are that people are bemoaning their favourite song not being in the set – something that echoes with the headline act as well. Four of the singles from Cavalcade are present and correct though and I Saw A Ghost even prompts a mini sing-along down the front. Plant The Seed, Forever In Your Debt and Know The Day Will Come are a powerful trio of songs to close their set that feel like they were made for nights like this in places like this and watching them blossom and grow into these halls has left us grinning from ear to ear most nights.
You can see the confidence oozing from them too. Front man Aaron invokes images at points of Ian Curtis, down on his knees, head on hand during I Saw A Ghost or the staccato movement of his arms as he channels the song as a means of exhuming the demons that live in the lyrics. Kurt and Jim provide the irresistible guitar and bass combination whilst one of the revelations of the tour, in these venues with sound that allows you to distinguish properly, has been David’s drumming, crisp, crystal clear and dictating the tempo of the songs. We once described them as the best band you’ve never heard, it’s time to right that wrong.
By the time James come to the stage around 8.45 the Arena is packed although it’s clear, at least where we were, that there’s none of the atmosphere that sometimes tarnishes these big hometown gigs. People are here for a celebration of their band, the one that unlike some of their more celebrated contemporaries can still fill places like this and do it on their terms and not as part of some greatest hits recycled package aimed at the pocket rather than at the heart and mind.
They open with Out To Get You, a song that they considered resting on this tour, but one which sets the right tone for the evening. As Saul’s violin and Mark’s melodica ripple over us, up the sides of the hall and back down it feels like something special is about to occur and it’s exactly what does happen. Tim shows us his battle scars from his venture out into the crowd the night before in Llandudno and asks us to be gentle with him and to treat his 56 year old body like a porcelain ming vase when he comes out to meet us.
This is the Girl At The End Of The World tour and tonight they ensure that it lives up to its billing. One minor criticism of James’ sets in the past has been that their sets for these big gigs are, understandably given this venue holds about the number of people that got them to number 2 in the charts, sometimes less directed towards the new, but there’s none of that tonight as we get nine of the twelve songs from the record. Four of those come in a row, once they’ve done the obligatory false start on one of them given the complexities of getting eight people on stage, tonight it’s Move Down South. Once it starts though, like all the new songs tonight, they don’t feel out of place, they belong in places like this and those that haven’t pulled their finger out and got to know the Girl need to do it. Jim wisecracks at the end of the set, deadpan as ever, that “it’s the last thing you should do.”
To My Surprise is probably, of all the new songs, the one that has had the most stunning transformation to a live song. It has a surging pulsating energy coursing through it and as thousands bellow back the “were you just born an arsehole?” chorus as the stage is illuminated in blinding white light. Tim comes down to the crowd and dives in head first, lifted across us on a sea of hands without losing a note. Surfer’s Song follows and as he jumps on one of the boxes, standing tall and proud surveying the crowd like a lighthouse keeper as the (sound) waves crash against him, it’s not the James of the big hits, but the adrenalin surge that the song injects as it takes everything in his path with it is something the band’s detractors would never envisage. Catapult has that same raw invigorating energy to it as well, Tim making his way into the seats to connect with more people.
Tim telling us “It’s good to be home motherfuckers” is almost drowned out by the deafening roar that accompanies the unmistakable siren call that is Come Home. It’s aged like a fine wine, still having that potency with which it announced itself all those years ago, but having grown within its own skin. Manchester predictably goes nuts, the aching limbs of the older ones amongst us being stretched to the limits whilst those experiencing this for the first time around us joyful and excited. Tim prowls the stage, eyeball to eyeball with Saul at one point, driving each other on. Ring The Bells and Sometimes have a similarly delirious effect from the barrier back up in the gods of level 2 and it’s great to see Adrian take centre stage and some well-deserved recognition for a solo as Sometimes builds up to its climax.
Part of the unique magic of James though is how they move from that euphoric outpouring of the likes of Sometimes to the aching longing of the beautiful PS that follows it. As the stage is drenched in yellow light, the focus turns to Saul and Andy, side by side, the fragility of the violin accompanied by the softness of the trumpet to stunning effect and fifteen thousand of us are stunned into silence.
The title track of Girl and Bitch might bookmark the album but they’re placed together mid-set and perfectly demonstrate the diversity of the record. Girl is probably the most “James” song on the record, whatever that means from a band constantly searching for new ways of expressing themselves, whilst that brooding menacing intro to Bitch is from a completely different place and time.
“From the sublime to the ridiculous” is how Saul describes the transition from Bitch to an acoustic version of She’s A Star and Just Like Fred Astaire. Both are met with a roar of appreciation from the crowd, but what’s so utterly magnificent about them is the way both songs have been transformed into something so different yet in the same breath absolutely capturing and distilling the simple beauty that’s at the heart of both songs. Dear John which follows has something similar going on at its core and the response it gets as it finishes is no less enthusiastic as to what’s gone before.
The final trilogy of Honest Joe, Sound and Attention is once again something genuinely special, not your traditional set closer for a band of this size and the level of history they have. Honest Joe is a shock to the system, not a song by any traditional measure, but an experimental wall of sound through which melody and rhythm come to the surface. There’s a few bemused faces around us as it starts but by the end everyone has been drawn in. Sound has taken on the challenge of the new pretenders to its throne at the end of the set and feels like it’s been given yet another new lease of life, always on the edge, always different as someone takes it down new paths before Andy appears in the seats with a fluorescent red trumpet. Attention is the real show-stopper though, at one point it feels like at the breakdown that the world has stopped in time. Tim stands stock still, head cocked back taking in what’s going on around him as the song comes slowly back in. No one else is making songs like this, yet alone the H-word bands that James get lumped in with.
James answer the question on how to deal with your most famous song in the way only they can. There’s a trumpet call from the very back of the arena as Andy is lit up in white light, Adrian starts up on one side of the arena, mandolin in hand, whilst Tim appears the other side, spotlight on him as he makes his way through the adoring masses, almost drowned out on the chorus. By the time he makes it back to the stage, everyone else is back on and the song finishes with a magical moment where the song is taken up and the arena joins in en masse.
Moving On and Nothing But Love finish the first encore, testament to the belief that James have in these songs above the list of more obvious songs that could fill these places. The former feels like it’s had life breathed back into it, a celebration of life rather than the mourning of death that looking round feels like it means something to everyone around us. Nothing But Love has a new ending where the song drops down to just vocals that works brilliantly as part of its exultant celebration of love.
They’re not going to be allowed to go anywhere as we’re still ten minutes from the curfew, but what they do next is far from the obvious. What For is a long-time old school James fan favourite – in a way it did what Sit Down did three years later on a lesser scale, taking them from the likes of The Green Room and the International into The Ritz. It’s given the acoustic treatment that Star and Fred got earlier, they start before everyone’s ready, it feels like there’s some sort of magnificent busking session going on, but it’s one of those songs that if you don’t know it, you almost don’t need to because the song will make its acquaintance and feel like your best friend by the end of it. There’s tears around us as people thought they’d never hear this song again live, yet alone in these circumstances. They finish with the propelling whirlwind of Tomorrow, as fast, frenetic and life-confirming as ever.
It’s a real shame that unlike those two legendary shows at G-Mex and in here in 2001 that this show wasn’t recorded for posterity and as proof, if any were needed, that James are as fresh and vital now as at any point in their long career. Like so many of the very best gigs, words will never be able to capture the experience. Whisper it quietly, but this was probably the best hometown arena show they’ve ever done.